Education and virtual worlds

Man looking in virtual model of buildings

Virtual worlds are recently new phenomena in that they enable people to meet and socially interact with others in a variety of online environments. Each user is able to build an environment which they navigate by means of a 3D figure or avatar. This avatar is personalised by the user and acts as their ‘alter ego’ in the virtual setting.

There are many different kinds of virtual worlds which cater to all ages. There are worlds for very young children, pre-teens, teenagers and early adulthood (e.g. 20’s). They may cater to different audiences but they all do essentially the same thing.

This section discusses educational virtual worlds for teenagers and adults. If you want to know more about virtual worlds for children then visit our educational virtual worlds for kids article.

Examples of educational virtual worlds

So what virtual worlds are we talking about? Here are a few examples of virtual worlds:

  • Kaneva
  • IMVU
  • Cybertown
  • Active Worlds
  • Mycosm
  • Entropia Universe
  • Blue Mars

These are just a few of the many virtual worlds available to you.

However, if you are looking for worlds which have an education theme then have a look at the following:

  • ScienceSim
  • Heritage Key
  • Active Worlds Educational Universe
  • Secret Builders
  • WizWorld Online

The aim of these worlds is to encourage active exploration allied to a sense of intense curiosity and a willingness to be part of what is going on, and to contribute.

What about Second Life? This popular virtual world is discussed in detail in the Second Life in teaching and Second Life for education articles.

Virtual worlds such as Kaneva, IMVU and Second Life have become popular with a great many people who enjoy the online interaction and social activities that they offer.

But they have been used in other ways which include:

  • Medical
  • Business
  • Entertainment
  • Education

Education is the subject of this article. A virtual world opens up new opportunities for learning, collaboration and understanding. It enables teachers to engage large numbers of students in ways that would not be possible in the real world. This means greater levels of engagement and retention.

Plus there is also the fact that many students are already using virtual worlds, notably Second Life which is the most popular of these virtual environments. Second Life is discussed in more detail in a separate article – Education and Second Life.

Advantages of virtual worlds in education

The advantages of virtual worlds include cost, location and engagement. Why engagement? If you are a teacher then you are probably only too familiar with the problem of trying to keep a class of lively youngsters interested in a subject long enough for them to understand it. Their attention span is limited and boredom threshold is high so you have two issues to content with.

But if they are avid users of technology which is more than likely then virtual reality or a virtual world will grab their attention and sustain this for a set period of time. They will be familiar with online social interaction especially with the rise in social media so why not use this as a way of imparting knowledge and information to them.

You set your students tasks and activities in the same way as you would in a real classroom but with much more scope for experimentation. This is where they can try out things and explore in ways which would be difficult or impossible in a real world situation.

Plus the virtual world is an adaptive environment. It has the ability to change and grow depending upon people’s preferences which only increases their understanding.

However, a virtual world is no replacement for ‘face time’ as it is now called. In other words, students still need to be able to discuss any issues they may have with their teacher and in the real world. So a virtual world should be considered as a complimentary aid to other teaching methods.

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